Mueller has expanded the Russia probe to include Trump’s business dealings — here’s what he’s looking at

US president Donald Trump. Picture: Getty Images.
  • Special counsel Robert Mueller is expanding his investigation to look at President Donald Trump’s business dealings.
  • Those dealings reportedly include Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings and the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
  • Trump had warned that Mueller looking into dealings could be a “red line.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller has expanded his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to include an examination of President Donald Trump’s business dealings, Bloomberg reported Thursday.

“FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008,” Bloomberg said, citing a person familiar with the matter.

Trump told the New York Times on Wednesday that Mueller would cross a line if he began digging into his finances. But in early June, Mueller began hiring lawyers with extensive experience in dealing with fraud, racketeering, and other financial crimes to help him investigate whether Trump or his associates conspired with Russia to undermine Hillary Clinton during the election.

The follow-the-money approach began with a money laundering case initiated by former US attorney Preet Bharara last year, according to Bloomberg.

Mueller — who was appointed as special counsel in May to lead the FBI probe after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey — is also homing in on money laundering and the business dealings of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Bloomberg said.

Bayrock and Trump SoHo

One of Trump’s real-estate advisers in the early 2000s, the Russia-born businessman Felix Sater, was accused nearly two decades ago of being a co-conspirator in a $US40 million fraud and money-laundering scheme involving four Mafia families. Trump worked with the real-estate firm at which Sater was an executive, Bayrock Group, on at least four projects that ultimately failed, including the Trump SoHo in Manhattan.

A lawsuit brought against Sater and others in 2015, which is ongoing, alleges that “for most of its existence it [Bayrock] was substantially and covertly mob-owned and operated,” engaging “in a pattern of continuous, related crimes, including mail, wire, and bank fraud; tax evasion; money laundering; conspiracy; bribery; extortion; and embezzlement.”

The lawsuit was first filed in 2008 by Bayrock’s former finance director, Jody Kriss, who accused Arif and Sater of cheating him out of millions of dollars via fraud, money laundering, and racketeering, among other misconduct. In December, a New York judge ruled that the lawsuit could move forward as a racketeering case.

SoHo Trump hotel
Trump SoHo

According to that complaint, Sater and Arif began negotiating with the Trump Organisation in 2003 to market certain projects under the Trump brand, but didn’t tell Trump about Sater’s criminal past.

In a 2007 deposition, Trump said his organisation never would have agreed to partner with Bayrock Group on the development of Trump SoHo had he known about Sater’s past. Trump also testified that he would not be able to identify Sater if they were standing in the same room.

Bayrock’s office was once two floors below Trump’s in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. A person familiar with the matter — who requested anonymity for fear of retribution by Sater or his associates — told Business Insider that Sater and Trump had standing meetings each week.

Sater has said in a deposition that he met with Trump “on a constant basis,” Bloomberg has reported, and Kriss told the publication that Trump valued Sater’s loyalty — and his Russia connections.

“It’s ridiculous that I wouldn’t be investing in Russia,” Trump said in a 2007 deposition. “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment.”

Sater was evidently still in touch with Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, as recently as late January. The two met at a New York hotel on January 27 to discuss a peace plan for Russia and Ukraine that was drafted by a Ukrainian politician, Andrey Artemenko, The Times reported. Cohen was said to have delivered the plan directly to Michael Flynn before he resigned as national security adviser on February 13, though Cohen has disputed that in subsequent interviews.

Sater showed Ivanka Trump and her brother, Donald Jr., around Moscow in 2006 when their father was scouting real estate in Russia. They stayed for several days at the Hotel National Moscow opposite the Kremlin, according to The New York Times.

Miss Universe in Moscow

Mueller is apparently interested in learning more about Trump’s relationship with Aras Agalarov, a billionaire Azerbaijani-Russian developer who paid Trump $US20 million to bring his Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.

Agalarov came under renewed scrutiny earlier this month when The New York Times reported that his son, Emin, brokered a meeting between Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer last June at Trump Tower. An email chain released later by Trump Jr. showed that Emin’s publicist, Rob Goldstone, had arranged the meeting on his behalf.

While in Moscow, Trump had dinner with the CEO of Russia’s largest bank, Herman Gref — a Putin ally whom Trump met, along with at least 10 other Russian businessmen and oligarchs, while he was in Moscow for the pageant.

“The Russian market is attracted to me,” Trump said shortly after the meeting. “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”

He also tweeted: “TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next.”

Gref recommended that Sergey Gorkov be appointed the new CEO of Vnesheconombank — a bank under US sanctions — in January 2016. Gorkov met with Kushner in December 2016 at Trump Tower for reasons that are still unknown.

Reuters reported in May that the FBI was examining whether Kushner entertained an offer from Gorkov to finance the Trump family’s business ventures in exchange for the administration relaxing or lifting economic sanctions on Russia.

Deutsche Bank and Dmitry Rybolovlev

As Trump praised and defended Russian President Vladimir Putin along the campaign trail, many questioned whether the real-estate mogul had any financial incentives — including business ties or outstanding debt — to seek better relations with Moscow.

The Washington Post has reported that “Trump and his family members have made numerous trips to Moscow in search of business opportunities” since the 1980s, “and they have relied on Russian investors to buy their properties around the world.” The Trump Organisation is also believed to have received loans from Russia when it was struggling in the 1990s, the report said.

The family’s bank of choice has long been Deutsche Bank, which was the only bank willing to loan to Trump after he lost others money in a series of bankruptcies — something he figured “was the bank’s problem, not mine,” he wrote in his 2007 book, “Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life.”

“What the hell did I care?” Trump wrote. “I actually told one bank, ‘I told you you shouldn’t have loaned me that money. I told you the goddamn deal was no good.'”

Deutsche Bank was fined earlier this year as part of a Russian money-laundering scheme that involved its Moscow, New York, and London branches. The bank refused in June to hand over documents requested by five Democratic lawmakers related to the bank’s relationship with Trump, citing the confidentiality of nonpublic customer information. But the FBI is likely to get ahold of them.

Questions have also been raised about Trump’s relationship with the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, a multibillionaire who was an early investor in one of the world’s most lucrative fertiliser companies. Rybolovlev bought a Palm Beach property from Trump for $US95 million in 2008, two years after Trump had put it on the market for $US125 million (after purchasing it for $US41 million in 2004.)

2008 was a rough year for Trump. According to PolitiFact, that was the year Trump Entertainment Resorts missed a $US53.1 million bond interest payment and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reorganise.

Rybolovlev’s cash infusion into Trump’s bank account is believed to be the most expensive home sale in US history. At that point, big banks were highly reluctant to loan to Trump, who had lost them money.

Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort

The FBI is also examining whether Russian officials suggested to Kushner that Russian banks could finance Trump associates’ business ventures if US sanctions were lifted or relaxed, Reuters reported last month.

The possibility first came under scrutiny after Kushner
met with Gorkov, the CEO of Russia’s state-owned Vnesheconombank, in December 2016. The meeting came on the heels of Kushner’s meeting with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, at Trump Tower, in which he reportedly floated the possibility of setting up a secure line of communication between the Trump transition team and Russia.

Kushner suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the US to communicate, which would essentially conceal the Trump team’s interactions with Russian officials from US government scrutiny, The Washington Post reported at the time.

Kushner’s meeting with Gorkov, the struggling bank’s CEO, came as Kushner was trying to find investors for a Fifth Avenue office building in Manhattan that is set to be heavily financed by Anbang Insurance Group, a firm with ties to the Chinese government.

That deal ultimately fell through, but the Kremlin and the White House have provided conflicting explanations for why Kushner met privately with Gorkov in the first place.

Meanwhile, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, has faced questions about whether he received cash payments reportedly earmarked for him for his work with former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s political party throughout the 2000s. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Manafort was in debt to pro-Russian interests as recently as last year.

Manafort has also come under scrutiny for more than a dozen bank accounts and companies he set up in Cyprus beginning in 2007 that were linked to offshore companies, NBC reported, one of which was used to receive millions of dollars from the Russian oligarch and Putin ally Oleg Deripaska.